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Commentary: Action must be taken to help seniors facing food issues

'Organizations like ours (the Arlington Food Assistance Center and Culpepper Garden) have joined forces to meet the need.'

Even as inflation finally starts to cool, one essential human need remains significantly more expensive this year than last: food. Prices at grocery stores and supermarkets were 5.8 percent higher in May 2023 than they were last year, and staple items like bread, packaged fruit and vegetables remain staggeringly expensive.

Rising prices have no doubt intensified food insecurity for low-income older adults in Arlington, putting their health and well-being at grave risk.

In the absence of adequate welfare support from state and local governments to help folks access affordable and quality food, local organizations like ours must step in to bridge the gap. But we shouldn’t have to do this work alone. The government needs to provide permanent safety nets for as life-sustaining basics become more and more out of reach for working-class older Americans.

Americans aged 65 and above make up one of the fastest growing segments of the population, one that has quadrupled since 1900 and is projected to hit nearly 81 million by 2040. Among them, 16.5 million are “economically insecure,” which means their incomes fell below 200 percent of the federal poverty level. In 2021, the threshold was an individual annual income of $25,760 or less.

Make no mistake – secure housing and nutrition are intimately connected. As it turns out, there is also a national shortage in affordable housing options for low-wealth older Americans, one that is compounded by soaring living costs and escalating poverty among them.

Prior to the economic shock caused by the COVID-19 pandemic, nearly 5 million adults over 65 lived below the poverty line while an additional 2.6 million were at serious risk. By 2021, the number of older Americans living in poverty grew to nearly 6 million — that is, a million older adults slipped through the cracks within a year.

Our leaders in Congress and beyond are not doing enough to assist low-income older Americans. While the Biden administration’s Inflation Reduction Act offered some aid in the form of lowering drug prices for Medicare beneficiaries, it included no measures to safeguard food security, access to housing or other essentials.

We have seen the impact first-hand –  although Arlington is one of the more prosperous communities in the region, 21 percent of residents experienced food insecurity in 2021. That’s why organizations like ours (the Arlington Food Assistance Center and Culpepper Garden) have joined forces to meet the need in Arlington and ensure that those in need have access to affordable housing and nutritious meals.

But as demand for our services grows, it is fast becoming difficult for us to keep up.

Culpepper Garden offers the only affordable assisted-living facility for low-income older Arlingtonians, made possible by HUD subsidies. Over the last eight months, we’ve seen our waitlist quadruple since last year and the calls keep coming in every day.

Similarly, at AFAC the rising number of older residents needing nutritional support will soon exceed the demand at the height of the pandemic. AFAC provides food assistance to nearly 1,750 older Arlingtonians each week, and rising inflation is compromising our ability to purchase the food needed to serve these individuals and their families.

In large metropolitan areas like ours, low-income older residents spend a significant portion of their monthly fixed income on rent. That means little to no wiggle room to cover the rising cost of food, energy and health care.

Unfortunately, shortcuts like eating off the dollar menu or avoiding quality produce essential for a healthy diet mean older individuals are risking their own health by consuming foods with higher levels of cholesterol, more fats and large amounts of sugar.

If we don’t act, an additional 2.4 million financially-vulnerable older Americans will be at risk of losing their housing. Should the cost of living continue to rise, more disadvantaged older Americans will find themselves compromising on their nutrition, which will in turn put more pressure on an overburdened healthcare system.

Protecting those who are most vulnerable to economic upheaval should be a legislative priority. That’s why experimental programs like the one within Medicaid that distributes subsidies for necessities like rent, utilities, nutritional counseling and meals are so important.

The program is currently used by a mere 19 states, and should be expanded nationwide.

But there are myriad ways in which Congress can help: by expanding access to SNAP benefits for older adults, introducing HUD subsidies to fund organizations like AFAC that serve communities in food deserts, and broadening eligibility requirements for school meals and free public transport.

We need our leaders to rally behind dedicated policy action to address the food insecurity low-income older Americans face today. Culpepper Garden and AFAC remain committed to helping low-income older Arlingtonians to the extent that our resources allow. But our leaders in statehouses across the country, and in Washington, must help us, too.

Marta Hill Gray is executive director of Culpepper Garden; Charlie Meng is executive director of the Arlington Food Assistance Center.